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Review: To Get Into Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly', Drop All Your Expectations

While Kendrick Lamar pulling from the past for To Pimp A Butterfly is hard to digest for some, it's ultimately what makes the LP a "classic" candidate.

Kendrick Lamar's deviation from the norm and pulling from the past may be off-putting for some, but it's ultimately what'll elevate To Pimp A Butterfly's "classic" candidacy.

Before we start talking about anything, wipe your mind clean of whatever Kendrick Lamar you think you know. Un-feel the wave of chills from his good kid, M.A.A.D city—fraught with its barbed lyrics and frantic professions against an orchestra of beats—as it described a youth coming up in Compton to a tee. Disregard the spitter that (respectfully) smoked every compadre standing beside him during TDE's 2013 BET Honors cypher. Ignore the man whose name was tatted on tongues for months following the annihilation that was his guest verse on Big Sean's "Control." Forget everything you thought you knew about that Kendrick Lamar before approaching his left-steering musical backtrack, To Pimp A Butterfly.

Kendrick's long awaited sophomore LP arrived without warning in the wee hours of the morning, one full week ahead of its March 23 release date. Aside from the dropped bomb nature of its release—listeners up past bedtime were forced into a FOMO-driven part two of the Black Messiah listening session D'Angelo caused back in December—TPAB was an even bigger surprise than listeners were bargaining for. Instead of thumping beats and Cali-saturated soundscapes, Butterfly swaps in jazz horns and G-Funk overtones, forcing us to redefine what the sound of hip hop is right now. Based on Twitter chatter alone, the masses are split. Many professed their love for it instantly, praising its nostalgic elements and crediting it for prompting an hour-long two-step. Others voiced their desire for more of the Kendrick they felt they were robbed of. To Pimp A Butterfly may or may not be exactly what people "wanted" or "expected" to hear, but it's definitely something we needed.

Buried within the album are valuable lessons in patience and slowing down when it comes to listening to music. Existing as a minority amongst hip hop's pit of empty-caloried fast-food music, TPAB requires layered listening. Careful chewing. Savoring. Digesting. Being a lazy consumer and putting it down after one quick listen leads to missing all the assorted flavors present on the plate. Like the conversation starters present on the fiery and militant "The Blacker The Berry" and introspective "Complexion." The diversity of funk and soul samples like Boris Gardiner's "Every N***** Is A Star" for "Wesley's Theory," "Momma" borrowing Lalah Hathaway's "On Your Own" and The Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady" for "i." The spoken word pieces scattered throughout, manifested as a cheeky "For Free?" interlude, a soapbox speech in the middle of an "i" performance and during a wide-eyed interview with immortal rap royalty on "Mortal Man." Butterfly shouldn't be rushed through in search of a song to blast at ig'nant levels in the car (although "King Kunta" and "Alright" are strong contenders). There's just too much to marinate on.

In addition to Kendrick's consistent lyrical acrobatics and detailed taletelling methods (a must listen for this is "How Much A Dollar Cost"), Butterfly's biggest strength lies in its feels. It's an ambience album full of aural color and emotional depth. K. Dot, his production crew (our hats are tipped to Flying Lotus, Sounwave, Terrace Martin and Thundercat) and his perked ears for musicality use sophisticated instrumentation and meticulous sonics to create surround sound moods. Take the groovy yet sensual "These Walls." The intimacy is palpable with its exasperated moans, wailing wind instruments, deep melodies and free styling electric keys. The tenor coos, faint scatting horns, drowsy background vocals and driving percussion of the upbeat "Alright" sends the body into a state of celebratory release without so much as having to think about it.

The album's not all sweet smiles and uplifting moments, though. It gets dark. On Butterfly, Kendrick treads into the side of his mind that depression once clouded. Hearing the painfully descriptive "u" is reminiscent to feeling an old wound slowly open up again. "Where's your antennas, where is the influence you speak of?" he sobs, harsh words slurring between glass clinks and audible gulps of liquor. "You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her/I fuckin' tell you, you fuckin' failure you ain't no leader/I never liked you, forever despise you I don't need you." During the self-deprecation session, he's cooped up in a hotel room gasping with the kind of breathlessness that comes after a long cry when the body is tired of tears but the heart isn't.

The beauty of To Pimp A Butterfly being the followup to good kid, M.A.A.D city is that they're more alike than you think. Sonically, Kendrick continues to utilize the voices on his album for more than just the verses. In both albums, he builds each song from the ground level up, using voices primarily as colors and instruments (Rapsody lends the only guest verse on the new project). On Butterfly, Anna Wise, Bilal, James Fauntleroy, Taz Arnold aka Ti$a and others paint the rich blues, purples and blacks on the backgrounds of his songs, setting the deep tone. The same goes for his own vocal chords. At times it's tough and gravely (for both "Backstreet Freestyle" and "The Blacker The Berry," and at others it's in a higher register, nymphy and introspective (for both "Swimming Pools" and the "For Sale?" interlude).

Although the sonic differences are immediately audible decade-wise, he hasn't compromised the complexity of his storytelling on Butterfly. good kid, M.A.A.D city was a concept album showing us what a single day in the crazy city of Compton looked like from behind his eyes, from harmless shenanigans with the homies and hating his grandfather's alcoholism to witnessing the shooting death of a friend and feeling the need to sing about those who have passed. In To Pimp A Butterfly, the themes are more broad but still touch on the things that Kendrick has absorbed during his matriculation through life. He speaks on the dynamic that he has with society both as a celebrity and as a black man. The hate and skewed relationships he's experienced during his ascent. The tough love and encouragement he gives back to his community whenever he can. Inner battles between pride and accountability when it comes to racial identity and creativity. Picking apart and appreciating the different quirks of the black experience.

Within months of its release, good kid, M.A.A.D city was quickly stamped a classic and, for the most part, it was undisputed. It's far too early to dole out such weighty accolades for To Pimp A Butterfly, but only a fool would profess that it isn't an important piece of work, especially for our time. For some, it'll be hard to appreciate Butterfly for what it is because, unfortunately, pointless inquiries like "Where's old Kendrick?" are still being thrown into the discussion. Not bothering to look beyond the rapper to see the artist expanding his craft and paving the way for others to do the same. Seeing these sonic alterations as shortcomings instead of the path to evolving into something even greater. Someone potentially legendary. Judging by the title and the poems stitched throughout the LP, all Kendrick wants to do is stretch the wings that have been cramped up under him for a while. Guys, the good kid is clearly a man now. Let him grow. —Stacy-Ann Ellis

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Review: Jessie Reyez’s Expressive EP Proves There’s Beauty In ‘Being Human In Public’

Jessie Reyez’s recently-released EP Being Human In Public proves that the Toronto musician’s fiery exterior comes with a cool, introspective center. Her 2017 EP Kiddo introduced her to the world as force who was willing to “go there” by singing about major issues like sexual assault and emotionally abusive relationships. This time around, Reyez muses about the softer side of love, displaying her flexibility within the overarching theme.

Much of her latest EP, which dropped Friday (Oct. 19), pertains to the wide range of emotions that come with romantic appreciation. Thanks to her animated performance ability, Reyez encapsulates the complex gamut of the strong emotional state; there’s longing, anger, confusion, confidence and so much more. The 27-year-old songbird’s vocal versatility has gained fans like Kamikaze collaborator Eminem and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and her attention-grabbing abilities are showcased throughout the multi-dimensional seven-song project.

Reyez’s true vocal gifts shine through when paired with more demure production, evident by the EP’s starting track “Saint Nobody” and the stand-out love anthem “Apple Juice,” produced by Tim Suby and Fred Ball. Her effortless falsetto notes at the duration of the aforementioned song are a melodic combination with the strings that finish out the track.

Perhaps the song that best displays Reyez’s tender core is “Sola (Interlude),” which is sung entirely in Spanish. She coos over an acoustic guitar to a lover about how she’s not necessarily the type of woman they should be with—she would be better off sola (alone). The result? A heart-wrenchingly relatable track that could have served best as the EP's stunning finale.

“I'm not the type of woman that your mother wants to see you with,” the lyrics translate to. “I could never please you...I'm an eagle, flying alone.”

While the content throughout Being Human In Public is rather profound in nature, Reyez makes sure that her signature unapologetic delivery to tackling topics through her songwriting is also highlighted. Thanks to assistance from budding music sensation Normani and Grammy-nominated R&B singer Kehlani on the “Body Count (Remix),” all three singers’ stances on body positivity, sex positivity and all forms of love are highlighted.

Additionally, the straightforward “F**k Being Friends,” which is slightly reminiscent of her quirky Kiddo track “Shutter Island,” deals with the occasionally murky divide between courtship and friendship. “My p***y beat better than my heart do?” she sings, “so why you p***y-footin’ on this part two?”

“In every aspect—in my music, in my life—I’m going to be straight with you, and I tell people too, I’m like that,” Reyez told VIBE in April about the importance of being upfront. “I need you to just tell me direct, because if the roles were reversed, I’m the type to tell you direct.” Love is one of the things that connects all of us as people, and if you can’t be real with that, what can you be real about?

Reyez makes sure that her honesty on wax is as plain and simple as it is in her personal life, and Being Human In Public is an audibly-pleasing extension of her personal beliefs and values.

READ MORE: NEXT: Behind The Extraterrestrial Voice, Jessie Reyez Is Human Like The Rest Of Us

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Lupe Fiasco performs as part of the benefit concert, 'Power To The People' at Coliseo Jose M. Agrelot on March 18, 2018 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Gladys Vega/Getty Images)
Photo by Gladys Vega/Getty Images

Lupe Fiasco Eschews Label Drama And Controversy For Ambitious 'Drogas Wave'

In the early 2000s, JAY-Z called Lupe Fiasco “a breath of fresh air” for rap. Most of the hip-hop world agreed. He delivered a standout verse on Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky,” and a well-regarded Food & Liquor studio debut that led rap fans to saint him as an imaginative, skilled lyricist, adept at weaving storytelling, social commentary, sustained metaphors and technical precision together in an A+ package. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that figurative breath of fresh air to become a sigh.

While crafting his third album Lasers, he began having creative differences with his former label Atlantic Records. Though the album was eventually released — after his fans literally petitioned for it — the struggle derailed what seemed like his inevitable trajectory to the heights of music that stylistic peers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole now occupy.

Lupe’s known in part for his sophomore album, The Cool, but it seems like a good stretch of his career was more defined by the frustration. In 2018, though, Lupe’s finally on the right wave — the Drogas Wave. Lupe dropped his first independent album last week, a 24-track conceptual piece dually exploring the drug trade and the transatlantic slave trade that cap-stoned his own trade of Atlantic Records for artistic freedom.

I really only did this album for solid Lupe fans. The PhD’s in Lupeism. It’s in no way for new fans, the casual listener, record sales, the year 2018 or radio. Just the core fans to have a ball with. https://t.co/N76F5YAeDJ

— “DROGAS WAVE” NOW PLAYING (@LupeFiasco) September 26, 2018

He’s always been a master of conceptualization, weaving thematic, if not narrative-driven connections from verse to verse and song-to-song on albums like Food & Liquor, The Cool, and Tetsuo & Youth. Drogas Wave is among his most ambitious work in that regard. The album, which he’s said was made specifically for his “core fans,” ideates what the rhymer called an alternate, fantastic history of the slave trade in which a group of Africans jumped off a slave ship, survived underwater, and spent their new lives sinking subsequent slave ships.

But he still delves into the reality of what happened on songs like “Manilla,” where he sheds light on the currency that European countries used to purchase slaves from West Africa to build so much of the western world. Looking to unite black and brown people across the Americas, Drogas Wave shows him representing for three communities of African descent cultivated in spite of western colonialism: Latinos, West Indians and Black Americans. He rapped fluent Spanish on “Drogas.” He collaborated with reggae royalty Damian Marley on “Kingdom” and rhymed in patois on “Gold vs. The Right Things to Do.” On the thrilling “King Nas,” he dedicates some of the project’s most impeccable rhyming not to God’s Son, but his two young nephews King and Nas who are coming of age in a treacherous environment for all black people in America.

The album was well-crafted and laden with thought-provoking, research-worthy bars examining the scourges that plunder black and brown communities, but it wasn’t flawless. He utilized over a dozen different producers on the project, which resulted in a few compositions that are less compelling than others. There are also choruses by Nikki Jean on “Down” and Troi Irons on “XO” that felt a tad too eager for mass appeal. But even on those tracks, the invigoration and dedication that Lupe rhymes with make them worthwhile listens.

Drogas Wave shows Lupe on the right track. While so many of his fellow rap veterans were ravenous publicity hounds this year, he spent his online time on Instagram Live, dropping what he called “super facts” about the fallacy of white supremacy and the music industry. He also apologized to people he’s insulted like former President Obama, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, and others. Throughout that March apology session, he ended his statements with variations of, “I should have kept that to myself.” Perhaps he’s now in a space that he should have been his entire career: independent and letting his incredible lyricism speak for him.

Lupe always has wisdom to impart, but like his Chicago comrade Kanye West, he doesn’t always communicate his thoughts in the best way. Over time, he developed a reputation for being an easily agitable presence on Twitter. He’s gotten into arguments with Kid Cudi, Azealia Banks, and several others. In 2013, he derogated Donald Glover as a “Black” instead of a “n***a” for arbitrary reasons.

In 2014, when Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was being accused of cultural appropriation because of her put-on “Atlantastralian” accent and racist lyrics, he defended her by saying she had “a space” in hip-hop. That comment made him one of the first victims of the dreaded social media “cancel,” and he lashed out with his own tweetstorm. He tweeted, “b***h I been here on the rooftop screaming in the ears of these brainwashed a** more money on they feet than in they pocket a** n***as,” and also proclaimed, “I'm here...kick pushing you ignant a** n***az and fast trout mouth a** b***hes all the way to the promised land kicking and screaming h**.”

His retorts were based in truth, but sometimes, brutal honesty is just brutality. The tweets typified why Phonte infamously likened Lupe to The Newsroom as a “technically brilliant show that would be a lot smarter if it stopped trying to show people how smart it was.” Compared to Q-Tip’s thoughtful hip-hop treatise to Iggy, Lupe came across like a know-it-all. But at the base of his anger was a frustration with being misunderstood. He incredulously groused, “I thought I was one of the good guys.”

The son of a Black Panther, Lupe had always delivered anti-establishment messaging in his music that hampered his budding status as the “Superstar” he rhymed about in 2007. In 2011, when most of mainstream hip-hop was deifying Barack Obama, Lupe was telling CBS that “the biggest terrorist is Obama and the United States of America” based on America’s warmongering throughout the Middle East, South America and Africa in particular.

His ire toward the country’s tyranny inspired an awkward, 30-minute rendition of the Obama-critical “Words I Never Said” at an inauguration party in D.C., which the show’s organizers called “a bizarrely repetitive, jarring performance that left the crowd vocally dissatisfied.” Songs like his “American Terrorist” series display his analytical acuity when it comes to diagnosing the roots of systemic oppression and its consequences, but at that point he seemed unable to properly convey his intellect outside the booth.

Lupe has said that he felt he was “immediately blackballed” after his Obama comments. While Lasers had sold 204,000 copies in its first week, 2012’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album was Grammy-nominated, but sold just 128,000 records overall as of 2012. His aforementioned Twitter antics were overshadowing his lyrical gifts, his attempts to drop knowledge were being mocked or misunderstood, and worst of all, he couldn’t release music on his own volition.

He told Power 106 in August 2014 that he was “worn down” by the “nonsense” of dealing with Atlantic, and that “we’re just trying to get albums out just to get off the label.” Months earlier he told Torae that, “I don’t have a 360 deal,” so “since they can’t eat off my merchandise or my publishing or my touring they treat me like a third-class citizen.” Still, he resolved, he’d ”fight through it.”

That determination defines him. While discussing “Mission” from 2015’s Tetsuo & Youth, he reflected, “I’ve been inspired by those who are surviving, thriving and fighting.” Just like he’s been fighting to thrive, in spite of label woes, the backlash from subversive beliefs, and self-sabotage that collectively tarnished his mainstream standing. Others artists have let the industry consume them, but Lupe’s still here, rekindling a musical brilliance that his fans knew he was capable of.

On Drogas Wave’s “Jonylah Forever,” a poignant song that ideates 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins, shot dead in 2013, as an adult, he rhymed about how “the coolest thing is when they offered you that high paying slot, you replied ‘they need me in the hood,’ and that's where you reside.” He then talked about her saving a shooting victim, rhyming, “and in that moment, where you gave your help/I bet you didn't know that you saved yourself.”

That powerful summation also applies to him, as an artist who helped others see the light while vying to keep his own spirit alit in a music industry that he mentally “quit” on a decade ago. He told Billboard in 2015 that “I'm happy being that somewhat sophisticated, overly deep weird guy making powerful music — but just two or three degrees away from the center of attention.”

Einstein once mused that, “creativity is intelligence having fun.” It didn’t seem like Lupe was having much fun as a major label artist. But after fulfilling his obligations to Atlantic with Drogas Light, and releasing Drogas Wave independently, he’s revitalized for the next chapter of his career — on his terms.

He recently stated that there would be no interviews for this album cycle because, “I’ve never seen myself as a star and I still don’t.” That makes sense. Stars can’t see themselves, it’s only us spectators who experience the fascination of watching them hover.

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Jack McKain

When It Comes To Both Sound And Sartorial Matters, Masego Has Upgraded To Silk

With his new album 'Lady Lady,' Masego strides into grown and sexy territory.

Masego is a silk man now, or so he tells me. He’s just shaken off the water from his body length PUMA coat, where a committed Reykjavik crowd braved an Icelandic “summer” rainstorm for him. Plastic bags are tied securely over his flashy sneakers, because he isn’t messing them up in the visible mud puddles cratering the city’s Laugardalshöll sporting grounds.

It’s a far cry from when we first met in Brooklyn, New York two years ago, where the then-22-year-old was pigging out at Peter’s Since 1969 before a packed Webster Hall show (R.I.P.), dressed in a multicolored velvet robe, busy blue Hawaiian shirt and basketball shorts that matched neither.

He’s almost embarrassed at the memory. “Why did you allow that?” he asks now, shaking his head. “I wanted the cover of The Fader and that's what I thought it would take. I was trying to out-weird n***as.” Masego, now 25, has not only learned from his sartorial flubs, but has overcome the mild insecurities that inspired them. “I was in this weird battle with people I didn't know and then I started to get more comfortable,” he says. “Get that silk.”

Masego 2.0 is upon us, and his grown and sexy debut album, Lady Lady, is the proof in the pudding. Right from the jump of the 13-track project, released on Sept. 7 (an admittedly somber day for music lovers), the “Silk…” opening instrumental makes it crystal-clear that his intention is to soothe and to woo.

His charm and playful sensuality come to the forefront on smooth tracks like “I Had A Vision,” the SiR-assisted “Old Age” (which also features Instagram comedian Renny) and the freestyled “Queen Tings” featuring SiR’s cousin, Tiffany Gouche. However, hip-hop and trap fans aren’t left out of the equation. Cuts like “Shawty Fishin (Blame The Net)," and “Lavish Lullaby” pair slick bars with enough knock and bass to soundtrack road trips as well as coax wallflowers onto the dance floor with a partner.

In the time between the release of his 2016 freebie project, Loose Thoughts, and now, Masego has seen some world. Frequent exposure to different pin drops across the globe and the creatives who live there bolstered his sound in exciting ways, giving way to some of Lady Lady’s standout selections. It’s an understatement to say that the LP’s instrumentation and production handiwork magnify his spotlight.

Take a look at the album’s supernova of a single “Tadow,” brought into full fruition during a jam session with French multi-hyphenate musician, FKJ. “I feel like the overseas travel is the inspiration. It kind of builds up and then when I get a chance to sit down, it just comes out,” he says. “I knew I was going to South Africa and then I sat down and we just free-styled, planted some beats, making stuff and then ‘Queen Tings’ was just freestyled. With ‘Tadow,’ on the plane ride to Paris I was watching a Fresh Prince marathon. You know the one where he slept with Janice? That was mad funny to me so that was the last thing in my spirit.”

Then on the album’s slow-burning title track, full-bodied lyrics are an afterthought. Instead, sensual scats and truncated mutters carried along the notes of his sax dim the lights, while velvety vocals crook the finger at his lady-to-be. "If you classy but you're reckless/Then you gon' get choose a necklace, lady lady," he coos, no stranger to slick talk.

“Everything kind of goes back to my uncles,” he says, reflecting on how the idea for “Lady Lady” came about during a family visit. “After going to Jamaica, I understand why they're so cool naturally. My Southern uncles, they got this Southern respect and there's a more pimp-ish side to my father's side and so that kind of comes together with ‘Lady Lady.’ It’s like ‘Lady Lady’ could mean… it’s like almost saying, ‘Hey love.’ It could be a potential love on that level or 'this my girlfriend,' you know what I'm saying?”

Within his short career, Maségo has remained unmarried to just one scope of music. The singer-songwriter and saxophone savant floats between jazz, hip-hop, and R&B (and the occasional trap) from song to song as freely as he pleases, but he's in his bag the most when they meld together. In his eyes, Lady Lady is the perfect cocktail of that, showcasing his creative maturation and slight pivot from the Pink Polo EP-era Masego fans are used to. “After my glow up stage is done, I want to just go off wherever Adele is chilling right now,” Masego jokes. “I want to like just be in the thick of things. I think [Lady Lady] is going to be lovely in the sense of it’s going to give you that next threshold."

READ MORE: Quincy Jones Gives Masego Advice On How To Become A Living Legend

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